Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23
























































































































Out of Chattanooga: “The Life and Times of Bessie Smith”

By Clifford Eberhardt

Chapter 13

Bessie had no trouble finding the Big Tent.  When she went inside, the tent was already filled with people waiting to see Jake’s snake act.  The people in the audience had started to get restless because Jake’s snake act was already ten minutes late.

When Bessie thought about the contest she looked in her hand, only to discover that she had lost the 75 cents Andrew had given her.  Bessie got nervous and wondered how she was going to find the money to get into the singing contest.

The Big Tent was much bigger than the smaller tent Bessie just left.  There were three times as many seats as in the smaller tent and a much larger stage.  There were about 350 people in the audience when Bessie entered the Big Tent.  It was standing room only, and Bessie had a hard time finding Jake.  After looking around the tent and not seeing him, Bessie started walking toward the back stage area because she knew that behind the stage was the only place Jake could be.

Bessie had gotten excited by the large crowd of people to see Jake’s act.  But when she reached the back stage area, Bessie was shocked to see Jake pacing back and forth. Jake didn’t hear Bessie when she entered the backstage area, but Bessie overheard him talking to himself.

“That bitch picked a fine time to leave me… I can just kill that bitch,” Jake said to himself aloud, talking about his helper.

“Damn!  Damn!” Jake said with determination and sorrow over his problem.

“Jake!”  Bessie said, “You remember me?  I’m Bessie!  Me and my brother Andrew met you at the 20 Grand Club when you first came to Chattanooga.  You told me ‘bout the singin’ contest, you remember?  Don’t you remember me, Jake?”  Bessie asked.

Jake turned.  Shocked by the break of silence from Bessie’s voice, he looked at her and a brief smile came over his face that convinced Bessie that Jake remembered her.

“Oh yea, kid I remember you,” Jake answered.  “But I ain’t got no time for you now ‘cause I gotta find my somebody to help me with my act.”

“I just wanna know how to get in the singin’ contest, and how much money it cost?” Bessie asked Jake.

“It Cost one dollar to enter the contest,” Jake said, “but you gotta put yo’ money up first ‘fore you can’ get in.”

“Jake, I lost my money, Bessie said. “Will you give me one dollar? I pay you back when I win the singin’ contest.  I lost my money in the back of the ice truck on the way out here.”

By now the crowd was booing and yelling for Jake to come on.  “Where’s Jake the famous snake handler,” someone shouted.

“He must got ate by one of them snakes,” someone else yelled, and everyone in the audience started laughing.

Jake looked at Bessie and said, “Bessie, I can’t cancel my snake act; if you help me, I’ll make sure you get in the contest.  I’ll even give you a dollar if you’ll be my helper… that’s enough money to enter the singin’ contest…” Jake said to Bessie, almost in a plea.

“But I don’t know what to do… I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout snakes, Jake… snakes scare me,” Bessie said.

It’s easy, Bessie.  You won’t get hurt ‘cause the poison glands been took out of all them snakes and Big Bo, the boa constrictor is as harmless as a baby,” Jake said to Bessie convincing her to help him with his act.

“What I gotta do, Jake?” Bessie asked.

“Simple, Bessie,” Jake said, “All you gotta do when we get on stage is take a snake out the cage and hand it to me.  Then I’ll do my act and give the snake back to you; you put the snake back in the cage and then get another snake out… and that’s all,” Jake told Bessie.

“Is that all I gotta do?”

Jake answered, “That’s all.”

”You think you can do it, Bessie.”

“Yasur,” Bessie answered. “Let’s go!”

Jake and Bessie then climbed up the ladder at the back of the stage.  When they reached the top of the stage, the master of Ceremony was already pacifying  the crowd with a few jokes when he saw Jake and Bessie come on stage.

The MC immediately stopped his monologue and introduced the snake act:  “Ladies and gentlemen… now the time has come!  It gives me great pleasure to present to you the longest running act on Ma Rainey’s Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show… with daring, courage and no fear for his life… I present to you… Jake-the-Famous Snake Handler!”

After that introduction the crowd stood and applauded as Jake and Bessie took center stage.  Bessie looked nice, and she was still wearing the white dress that Viola had made.  Jake was dressed in a silver, sleeveless shirt with black tights.  He wore black leather boots that came to his knees.  Jake was of medium high, well-built Colored man.  He could have passed for white but he never did.  His hair was jet black, long and straight. In came to his shoulder and he had a thin mustache.

After several introductory bows by Jake and Bessie the crowd took to their seats and the snake act was on.  The cages that held the snakes were sitting up top of each other on a long wide table.  Jake pointed to the top cage.  That was his signal for Bessie to open the cage and take out the first snake, she could hear the MC’s voice identifying the snake that she had in her hand.

“The first snake that Famous Jake will handle is the most poisonous snake in the world… it’s the King Cobra,” the MC announced.

Bessie, with snake in hand, handed it to Jake without fear, believing what Jake had told her earlier about the snake’s poison glands being taken out.  Jake took the snake from Bessie’s hand and began to handle it.
           Jake put the King Cobra around his neck, and a hushing sound came from the audience.  He then made the snake

move from his neck to the top of his head and then down Jake’s right shoulder and then it wrapped around his waist.  Now, the snake moved down Jake’s right leg and crossed over and moved up his left leg.  Next, the snake moved down the entire length of Jake’s body, and back up, and around his neck.  Jake repeated this routine several times before he gave the snake back to Bessie to put in the cage.

As Bessie took the snake from Jake, the crowd began to applaud Jake’s performance. After she put the snake back in the cage, she heard a rattling sound but the MC’s voice came in and overshadowed the rattling.

“The second snake that Jake-the-Famous Snake Handler will handle is the Great Diamondback Rattle Snake,” the MC announced.  “The Diamondback Rattle Snake is the most poisonous snake in North America.”

Jake took the snake from Bessie and went through the same routine he had done with the King Cobra.  By now Bessie was feeling sure of her ability to be Jake’s helper.  After going through the snake routine several more times, Bessie had gotten so confident that she was opening one snake’s cage before putting the other snake in.  Jake got applause after applause for his snake performance.  Now it was time for Big Bo, the boa constrictor.

Jake pointed at the big cage sitting a few feet from the other cages at the end of the table.  When Bessie saw Big Bo, she hesitated for a moment before opening the door to the cage.  When Bessie opened the cage, Big Bo peered his head out with his tongue slipping back and forth in its mouth.  The size of the snake shocked Bessie and she stopped before she grabbed it around the base of the head.  Big Bo was over 20 feet long and more than 10 inches round.  Big Bo weighed about 100 pounds, almost twice the weight of Bessie, and it was too much for her to handle.  She struggled to get Big Bo out of the cage into Jake’s open hands, but before she dropped the giant snake Jake grabbed it.

Jake took hold of Big Bo and the boa constrictor started to wrap itself completely around Jake’s entire body.  At one point in the performance, the giant snake was so completely wrapped around Jake that is appeared the snake was standing on its tail.  The crowd was stone silent as Jake went through his routine with Big Bo.

When Jake was finished with his routine, the audience gave him and Bessie a standing ovation.  Jake was so caught up in the audience’s applause that he handed Big Bo back to Bessie forgetting that the snake was too large for her to handle.  Bessie took the large snake and was struggling to get it back into the cage, but before she could reach the cage wit hit, the giant snake fell to the stage floor.

Bessie screamed!  And suddenly the audience’s cheers and applause turned to screams and shouts of horror.

“Oh no!” Someone shouted.

“That big snake is loose!”

“Let’s get out of here!”  The cries were coming from everyone in the audience.  People were running over each other trying to get out of the tent.  They were knocking over chairs, screaming as they ran out of the tent.  The fear of the big snake was so great that everybody in the tent panicked.

By now, Big Bo had gotten off the stage and was on the ground headed toward the people in the audience.  Jake was still bowing and didn’t notice the commotion around him. Then Bessie grabbed him by the back of his shirt and shouted, “Jake Big Bo is loose!”

Jake looked up, seeing that the boa constrictor was headed toward the audience; he ran and tried to capture the snake with his bare hands.  By now Big Bo had been spooked by the frightened audience and was twisting its head and tail in such a way those chairs were being thrown from one end of the tent to the other.  When Jake couldn’t handle the snake with his hands, he got hold of a snake stick and tried to put the two ends of the snake stick around the base of Big Bo’s head but it didn’t work.  The snake twisted its head in one movement, and the two forks like ends of the snake stick snapped in half.  The thrust was so great that it threw Jake back into the other snake cages.  Then all the cages tumbled down and snakes were loose everywhere.

The audience was still running out of the tent as Jake, Bessie, and the MC were on their hands and knees trying to pick up snakes.  Jake’s snake act was a total wreck.  The Big tent was total wreck.  Snakes were everywhere and all Jake, the MC and Bessie could do was try to pick up as many snakes as they could.

Jake was on his hands and knees trying to catch a snake when he looked at Bessie eye to eye while she was on her hands and knees, “Bessie you gotta get to the front gate to buy yo’ ticket and pay the dollar so you can get in the singin’ contest… or you’ll be too late.”

Still on his knees, Jake reached into the pocket of his shirt and pulled out some money to give to Bessie.

“Here’s yo’ dollar… don’t worry ‘bout the snakes… you still did better than that helper of mine.”







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